Imagine someone has been awake because of many thoughts and worries that has been thinking about the whole last night. (These thoughts did not allow him to sleep.) I was wondering if you could let me know how the following self-made sentences differ in meaning and what is the subtle nuance between them?

  • I couldn’t sleep at all last night.

  • I couldn’t fall asleep at all last night.

  • I couldn’t get any sleep last night.

For me, the three sentences mean the same.

  • I think the first one and the last one could also mean that you couldn't sleep for other reasons, for example to study.
    – Ahmad
    Dec 31, 2016 at 12:30
  • @Ahmad thank you for being of the help, but that's obviously clear that in the first two there is a reason involved, but how about the latter one? ;)
    – A-friend
    Dec 31, 2016 at 12:59
  • Pace Ahmad, these phrases would not be understood to mean that you deliberately stayed awake. Because of the presence of "at all" or "any" and "get" in combination with "couldn't", the statements would be understood to mean that you did indeed try to get some sleep but were unable to do so. Also "fall asleep at all" is marginal/ungrammatical.
    – TimR
    Dec 31, 2016 at 13:51
  • If you want to say that you were required to remain awake (e.g. to study) you would say "I had to stay awake last night" or "I couldn't allow myself to fall asleep..."
    – TimR
    Dec 31, 2016 at 13:57
  • 1
    @A-friend. If the state referred to by fall is understood to be a state that one has entered with no possibility of being only partially in that state, no possibility of degree, then an adverbial phrase such as at all, whose meaning is based on the notion of degree, doesn't make perfect sense. I couldn't fall off the roof at all is ungrammatical or at the very least semantically "off". But I hedged, and said it was "marginal/ungrammatical", because some speakers might understand at all in this context to mean at any time throughout the night rather than to any degree.
    – TimR
    Jan 1, 2017 at 12:38

2 Answers 2


For someone who is up for one night because of things on their mind, those phrases would probably mean essentially the same thing. People who regularly have sleep problems are likely to describe them more precisely, in which case the sentences could mean different things.

I couldn’t fall asleep at all last night.

The person never achieved sleep, and it implies that they were awake enough the whole night to be aware of the fact that they weren't falling asleep. To the comments about "at all" being ungrammatical, I would suggest that it implies a meaning of "at any time" rather than degree.

I couldn’t sleep at all last night.

I couldn’t get any sleep last night.

These are ambiguous, and the two sentences could apply to similar situations. They could have meanings ranging from literal to figurative.

  • Literal: they could mean that the person wasn't able to fall asleep, so they didn't get any sleep.

  • Perceived: they could mean the person perceived that they got no sleep, or almost no sleep. Without getting into the weeds of the physiology of sleep, there is a range of normal conditions in which the person perceives that they got little or no sleep but actual got more than they thought.

  • Figurative: the sentences could also mean just that it was a poor night's sleep that wasn't restful. The sentence could be figurative or an exaggeration.

These two sentences don't differentiate the various conditions they could describe and aren't reliably different from each other.


Yes, all three have same meaning.

First and second sentence are exactly same, just with the usage of different words.

As of your last sentence, it also means the same that you couldn't sleep the last night, meaning you didn't fall asleep last night.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .